Los Angeles-based Red Sparowes latest album The Fear Is Excruciating, But Therein Lies the Answer has gained considerable momentum since it was released early this month. One thing the group has managed to prove in spite of the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of their critics’ responses is that their organization and dedication to the recording process don’t necessarily reflect a group in a near-constant state of flux. I sat down with Dave Clifford (drums) and the group’s latest addition, Emma Rundle (guitar), at Santa Cruz’s Crepe Place to discuss the band’s progress. After only five minutes Dave managed to dash the hopes of at least one Sparowes fan and make one thing perfectly clear: they will not be playing The Galleria with Tiffany – at least not on this tour.
SICK OF THE RADIO: Since being on tour with the new material, have you felt the audience’s response and reaction change over the course of the tour?
DC: Yeah, I think so… Over the course of the band, the thing that is kind of interesting is that [our other albums] have never been as well-received as this one. It’s interesting that even though you encounter all kinds of opinions along the way, it has been a really positive response even though it’s been a long time and we’ve not been as active as we’d like to have been. It seems to be very good, although some people have asserted that there’s been some major change to the band.
SICK OF THE RADIO: With the line-up shift?
DC: Yeah, but it’s always been shifting. The first album was almost a completely different line-up, and then the second was different, and the EP before this one was different, and we’ve just had so many different people in the band throughout. We’ve toured many times with different guitar players filling in for Cliff because Isis is always on tour, too. It’s one of those things where for all of us it’s been pretty different every single time. We’ve learned to function with this overall concept of what the band would represent, and so I think everyone just falls into that and let’s that guide things and we just create things around that.
SICK OF THE RADIO: Were you able to intuit the audience’s anticipation of that when arranging the tour?
ER: I think we definitely want to be supporting the new record we’ve been making and we play some of the older songs that are more popular with fans, like “Buildings”. Response wise, I feel that people have been responding almost equally to some of the catchier songs that are on the new record. But the responses vary.
DC: It’s funny, I think it’s really so inconsistent. One review will be something like, “This is completely different.” And another claims it’s exactly the same as. It happens all the time for any band, but it’s pretty dramatic this time around in the sense that people are having such a completely different response to it than ever before.
SICK OF THE RADIO: Do you feel it has something to do with the glomb of genres that has been created? Is it hard for listeners to discern any one thing from another because of how everything is just turned into a composite? In the past you have said being labeled as post-rock hasn’t really been a burden to you as it has to other bands; rather, you hope you don’t get pigeonholed, but you don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing.
DC: Inherently the term suggests “what happens next after rock music” and everything being a conglomerate of styles and sounds. You can’t put a finger on it. What I’ve considered with regard to that is that every genre has two or three bands that exist that easily fit. Then over time, more bands start to do it and then it becomes this really amorphous, meaningless thing to call a bunch of bands that are very different from each other by one term. It’s just evidence of the evolution of how things are being regarded.
SICK OF THE RADIO: One common perception is that this is a concept album, and that with the lack of vocals it plays like a suite. It’s not Fantasia, but you do have the narrative component applied via the prose-turned-song titles you use. Do each of you sit down like a think tank and carefully choose concepts with concern for how audiences perceive the themes?
DC: Well, we wish it were [Fantasia].
ER: There’s one meeting specifically where we all came together to discuss themes we thought would be relevant-.
DC: Well, when we originally had the discussion of it, it was before Emma was in the band. When we were working on Aphorisms, it was just an idea of something we could do. We had some connected ideas, but they were a little bit at odds. The EP was just a precursor suggestion of what the overall album idea was going to be, so it was worked out in advance but not in such detail for the final result of everything. Other than that, musically it wasn’t something that we were trying to adhere to in regards to what would be on it.
ER: Although, the intro song is tied to the last song on Aphorisms, so they can be played back to back and there’s continuity between the songs and their titles.
DC: All the song titles still work as a piece of prose the same way the others did to maintain that consistency, but just not have the titles be as long as they were.
SICK OF THE RADIO: To what extent does each of your personal world views guide you to the concepts for your work?
DC: Most of the time people in bands tend to have a similar world view. I think all of us are generally coming from the same place. We all have different ideas about certain kinds of things. I think it’s not good to put any sort of agenda into music, I think it defeats the whole idea of art, and I don’t like things that are either so abstract they’re meaningless, but I don’t like things that are so direct that in the end it’s like hitting people over the head with a take-away theme. That’s something we all try to keep in it: if you just like music, you can listen to this and be into it and that’s all you have to care about.
SICK OF THE RADIO: If the written narrative’s not as important in terms of the expression, what makes you choose the visuals you do? If the background doesn’t mean as much to enjoying the music, are the visuals just chosen to aesthetically compliment the music?
ER: Well the visuals are related to the concept, or they’re at least related to the concept of the album that the song is from. We did do that on this tour and we all contributed to making the visuals, but they’re not so explicit that you won’t be able to just watch them and enjoy something with an interesting aesthetic that’s separate from the concept. It’s there if you look for it.
SICK OF THE RADIO: What were some of your sources?
DC: Teletubbies. [Laughs]
ER: We got content from a lot of places. Some members went out and actually filmed things, some did editing, some of it is stock footage, some is from websites…
DC: It’s all pretty mixed. That’s something that’s been a challenge. I’ve seen so many bands perform with projected visuals that are either meaningless or strictly for shock value
SICK OF THE RADIO: Projecting Milo and Otis behind a death metal band because you can?
ER: Well, I’m not opposed…
DC: I like it to be something that somebody can watch and they’ll know that there’s a purpose to it, it’s not just a bunch of superfluous bullshit. There’s a bit of a deliberateness in regards to the visuals, but we don’t want it to be so overbearing.
SICK OF THE RADIO: Do you feel that through this tour – not that one tour can decide everything – but that through making this album and doing this tour, are you reaching a simplification or streamlining of your process?
EC: I’m the new “guy”. After having been in the band for about a year now, doing the record and the tour, it seems like collectively now that we’ve established this line-up it will be streamlined in the sense that we all understand how to work together. I think there will be a lot more productivity and growth from the band, so people can expect things will continue to change.
SICK OF THE RADIO: …So it sounds like there’s good communication.
DC: [Laughs] Something that all of us have talked about or brought up, there’s this thread of wanting to be like one of those bands that has longevity yet changes a lot over time. You look back at the beginning and think “they’re so different from that”, but without getting terrible in the process. Personally I would like the next record to be extremely different from anything else, just so it remains interesting without getting compromised.
SICK OF THE RADIO: Was there a certain excitement for you [Emma] when the opportunity came about?
ER: It’s a story. There’s definitely a group of people in Los Angeles who all know each other and it’s a bunch of different bands that are all connected. I was a huge fan of Red Sparowes before joining the band. This friend of mine, Troy Ziegler – who’s an amazing musician, a drummer and really accomplished guitar player – was going to join the band but then couldn’t because he got offered an opportunity to play drums for Juliette Lewis. He couldn’t do it although they wanted him to, so he suggested that I do it. It came as a huge surprise and I thought there was no way I’d ever be able to do anything like that because I held them in such high esteem. I didn’t know any of them personally – I’d met Andy at a Mars Volta show and Clifford in certain social situations, but that was it. It was very nerve-wracking, so I went in and auditioned playing a couple sketches of songs they’d created, asked me to write parts and then come in and play them. And then I also learned one of the older songs and then just asked me to join.
SICK OF THE RADIO: How have things changed for you since joining?
ER: I’ve been involved in music since an early age; I grew up in a very musical family. When I was about 18, I started doing my own music but began performing seriously as a pianist. Playing in my own band [The Nocturnes (http://www.thenocturnesmusic.com/ )] – which I still do – I was doing a lot of shows and actively involved in writing and making a record when I joined Red Sparowes. As for how things have changed, I’ll touch on the feminist issue because “post-rock” is a largely male-dominated music scene. Of course there’s Mono with an awesome female musician playing, but gender was definitely on my mind. One, because I was joining an all-male band, the boys’ club; two, entering a genre whose audience and performers are largely male. It’s a good feeling for me.
SICK OF THE RADIO: Do you feel comfort is a bad thing? Does it make you worry about getting stagnant?
ER: I wouldn’t say we’re comfortable. Never.
DC: Yeah, but I’d say the idea of being formulaic is always something that we try to avoid, especially this time. Some songs we play and think, “that sounds like a Red Sparowes song”, and then others just don’t seem quite right. That’s not necessarily comfort – we’re just trying to maintain an essence.
SICK OF THE RADIO: How has the transition from been for you from your previous projects to this one?
ER: It’s very different. I came into the band through the recommendation of a mutual friend and have played in bands before. I’d say it’s a lot more efficient and egalitarian, there’s more of a heavy process having so many members. It’s easier in a lot of ways, we share. It’s more structured when it comes to logistics, but when it comes to creativity it’s more free-flowing. You can come into this band with absolutely anything and everyone’s willing to contribute or give things a chance; things work and things don’t work.
SICK OF THE RADIO: A number of articles applauds your addition to the group.
ER: They’re just being nice. Everyone contributes, everyone contributes equally.
DC: It’s a rarity, though. It’s hard to have three guitars and have them all be doing something interesting. It’s a testament to everybody’s talent. I’m always in awe of what everyone comes up with. We work in a way that’s very democratic – everyone comes up with their own parts, and it sucks. It’s a tedious way to do things, the process takes forever but the end result is always really cool. To me it shows that we have really talented musicians who can create
ER: Where we all may be coming from similar places in our world views, musically we come from very different places. My approach to playing guitar involves simplified finger style and having grown up listening to shoegaze-y rock music; then you’ve got Andy and Cliff who each play something completely different.
SICK OF THE RADIO: What do you do in your off time when you’re not recording? As far as the process goes, is it hard to get away from your other lives to get together and record or do you do it by other means?
ER: We all live in L.A., so that makes things a lot easier. Almost everyone is involved in music, even in their day jobs, so it’s not so difficult in that we’re trying to get away from the supermarket, you know what I mean? Music is continually a focus for each of us, in one way or another.
DC: It’s been my entire life. I remember thinking way back, I worked as a writer for a long time and being obsessed with music for my entire life has just built this up around me. It’s become everything that I do. There are other creative projects I do that aren’t musical…
ER: For instance, there’s his miming side business-…
DC: You’re not supposed to talk about that.
SICK OF THE RADIO: In regards to discussing upcoming projects or even past problems with perhaps the old line-up, it seems as though you’re guarded. Granted, if the information’s not there, it’s not there; but do you intentionally keep a tight lid on things until everything’s been fleshed out lest people get ideas and spin it in a way you hadn’t intended?
ER: That’s going to happen one way or another; it’s unavoidable.
DC: I’ve noticed that people have done that. With the way information spreads these days, as soon as you open a topic for discussion, everyone takes that idea and misinterprets it. There was the notion of us experimenting with vocals and suddenly it turned into people thinking we were going to have Cookie Monster vocals. The widest speculation occurs just because information exists. People are so easily fooled these days and they just consider it to be true. It’s good to be cautious.
SICK OF THE RADIO: Do you have anything on your plate after the tour?
ER: Clifford will be going out on tour with Isis almost right away, but we’re going to get into the rehearsal space and start writing a record almost as soon as we get home. We’ll just take turns contributing ideas and drift in and out as we have to and add our two cents to whatever we’ve got going.
SICK OF THE RADIO: Have you come to any realizations through this tour that allows you to think forward to another release two years from now?
ER: Get a new guitar. My frustrations mainly come from gear.
DC: It’s such an easier band to be in than it has been in the past, so that’s good. We’ve streamlined what we needed to and stay organized as far as that goes, but trying to keep things interesting for people who come and see us every time. We try to make a very interesting and involving live show that creates a whole environment, and the whole end goal is just for people to come into our universe for an hour and just stay there.
By, Caitlin Welsh